Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God
Why is it not absurd to claim that John 1:1’s claim that the (human) world originated with the Logos, best understood simply as “the Word,” may be understood not merely a proposition of religion, but of anthropology? The fourth Gospel affirms that the (human) world begins with a word of human language—the utterance that GA identifies as the ostensive shared by the participants in the hypothetical originary event.
There is no consistent meta-vocabulary in which to express the fundamental operation introduced into the world by linguistic representation, given that our hypotheses are expressed in a language so far evolved from this origin that our efforts to think ourselves in this originary position cannot be altogether self-assured. Yet I think we can credit our intuition sufficiently to conceive a scenario of this introduction, given that our evolved humanity retains its prehuman components, and that the notion of an act of renunciation becoming a sign of this renunciation, as well as of the significance or sacrality of what was renounced, is well within the scope of our imagination. (Sacred and significant are virtual synonyms; what is sacred is what is (really!) significant, and what is significant is (at least a little) sacred—not just to me, but to humanity in general, for significance is always understood that way, and sacrality still more so.
At the origin of human language, and with it, of the human as such, the signifier and its sacred/signified are born coevally, responding to Roy Rappaport’s intuition, sadly neglected in recent decades by the anthropological community, that language and religion have a common origin. (See Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge: 1999.) Yet it is notable that John puts the Logos/Word before any mention of God, whose presence must have preceded the “beginning” ontologically, but not in terms of human temporality. Derived from an aborted gesture of appropriation, as postulated by the originary hypothesis, the originary signifier was an ostensive, that is, a pointing, no doubt accompanied by a vocalization, but in which the gesture directing the interlocutors’ gaze would be the fundamental component.
The ontological status of the Logos in the Greek passage is unclear. Although the end of the sentence is most often translated, as here in the King James version, as “the Word was God” in anticipation of its identification with Jesus, the Greek description of it as θεὸς should literally be translated as “godly,” or simply, “sacred.”
It was in his search for an anthropological basis beneath this metaphysical vocabulary that René Girard, rather than bothering about words, conceived his originary hypothesis as la violence, ou le sacré. Human violence, which risks destroying the species from within, is primordially significant. Daring to draw the necessary consequences of this seeming self-evidence is the secret of Girard’s importance as a thinker, that is: as one who makes explicit what had previously been taken for granted. Human violence is not merely brute force; as aggression directed to a fellow human, it incites mutually reinforcing mimetic violence, making humans the only species whose greatest danger comes not from external nature but from itself.
This implies that, with the development of protohuman intelligence, the serial Alpha-Beta hierarchy of anthropoid apes would break down under mimetic pressure. The ensuing violence could only be ended when the protohuman group came to anticipate and therefore defer the potential danger implicit in the distribution scene focused on an animal source of protein. By designating the animal to be divided by an ostensive sign derived from each participant’s “aborted gesture of appropriation,” the newfound human community avoids mimetic conflict, transforming the animal’s appropriation from a serial to a communal act. The reciprocal communication of the sign creates a symmetrical relation of the participants to the center that allows the animal to be divided in equal portions, an activity that remains the central rite of surviving egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies—and in countless derivative forms, of all human societies, including our own.
Yet as explained in Chronicle 749, this idea of the first sign as an aborted gesture of appropriation, however reasonable it may appear once one takes the trouble to reflect on the originary hypothesis and to consider possible objections and alternatives to it, is subject to a “soft taboo” that keeps it outside public awareness.
What makes this hypothesis of a worldly source of language unthinkable? Why does this explanation of John’s insight into linguistic anthropology encounter in our Judeo-Christian modernity the very response John attributes to the Logos? καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν: And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
We cannot think without language, and so we equate language with the propositions in which thoughts are expressed: I think, therefore I am. For the community of linguists and of scholars generally, a simple pointing gesture perhaps accompanied by a vocalization does not qualify as the foundation of human language. “Joint shared attention” may be unique to humans, but language is something far more complex, a genetically inherited “module” perfected over thousands of generations.
John’s insight is perhaps the most powerful brief demonstration of Christianity’s supplementation of Judaism’s monotheistic anthropology. What the One God affirms as ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am what/that I am, is a declarative sentence asserting the priority of the sacred as self-affirming being to the self-consciousness of its worshipers, whereas John begins simply with the logos, which philosophers may interpret as they will, but whose basic meaning is word. To take this literally, or more simply, to take it seriously, is to affirm that prior to either the incarnation of the Word or to the philosophical understanding of the Logos, there is simply the word itself. What generative anthropology proposes is to take this statement at its word. John’s text is not meant as contradicting Genesis’ account of the creation of the world, but as recounting the emergence of the world into human consciousness through the word, along lines that the originary hypothesis explains in plausible terms.
Of course it is John’s identification of the Word with Jesus in the wake of the Crucifixion and Resurrection that is the source of his insight into human language. But this revelatory source is not itself the substance of the opening clause, which affirms the temporal priority of the word of (human) language.
I am not claiming that either John’s purpose or his intuition was the same as mine, merely that we both describe the same fundamental relationship between language and its object. The Word may be with God and sacred, but its light’s inability to penetrate the darkness makes clear that this is not the same Logos that we find in Genesis 1:3 that acts as a self-fulfilling imperative. For John, the origin of the human with the Word can be grasped only in the context of Jesus’ human voice and its worldly rejection, which only the Resurrection transcends. In the context of our concern for the origin of humanity-in-language, the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a source of anthropological understanding. And I would insist that this anthropological understanding is real independently of its revelation in a religious context, just as the anthropological truths of the Old Testament must be so understood.
There is nonetheless a key difference between John’s account and that of the originary hypothesis. The latter, contrary to the former, insists that whatever individual initiative may have led to the first utterance of the Logos, it survived only insofar as it was repeated by all, that is, that all the participants eventually accepted it as the solution to the problem of dividing up the prey animal that was the original source of contention. Which is to say that the Logos that was there “in the beginning” could not have survived had it not been taken up by the entire community, had its fate not been the contrary of that of John’s light shining in the darkness.
This apparent contradiction is by no means foreign to the history of generative anthropology. It may be said to define the crux of the opposition between Girard’s vision of the originary scene as an “emissary murder” and that of GA’s originary hypothesis with its irenic conclusion. If Christianity is founded on the Crucifixion and Resurrection, on the “death of God” as the necessary precondition to the conquest of original sin, how then can we claim that this “scandal to the Jews” permits a clearer understanding of the seminal role of language in the constitution of the human universe than was available to the original worshipers of the One God, given that we disagree with John’s description of the originary success of the Logos? Far from being rejected by the darkness, it was the spark that created the originary human community.
To restate the question more succinctly: why does Christianity, which grasps, in contrast with Genesis’ creation of the universe by God, the originarity of (human) speech as humanity’s/the world’s effective origin, insist that the Word, although with and of God, at first failed to make its light penetrate the darkness—thereby inspiring Girard’s originary hypothesis of scapegoat-murder? And how then does GA’s “Jewish” reading of this Christian text allow us to reconcile it with our own minimal hypothesis of origin?
The anthropological truth in John’s description of the failure of the Word is that, in order for us to grasp the originarity of the Logos as a human production only in the wake of which could the sacred’s prior reality be discovered, it must first have been experienced in its solitary weakness as an appeal against the “darkness” of the human violence/sinfulness revealed in the Crucifixion. For the Word is not a divine but a human utterance, whose successful deferral of this originary violence can be accomplished only upon the revelation of its sacred provenance that makes it the model for the newly formed human community. For John, it is the Crucifixion and Resurrection that provide this revelation.
The failure of the Word… Those familiar with GA’s history may recall that an analogous point was raised by Adam Katz in “Remembering Amalek: 9/11 and Generative Thinking” (Anthropoetics X, no. 2 Fall 2004/Winter 2005), where he pointed out that my original description of the originary sign as “simultaneously” produced by the entire protohuman group was unjustified—and indeed, incompatible with the non-reflexive nature of the sign, the first human act preceded by an intention, meaning a deferral or différance. Adam’s point—and I would insist that it is a “Jewish” one not merely in virtue of its maker’s ethnicity—is precisely what permits GA, given its post-Christian Jewish origin, to both understand John’s Christian advance over the original Hebrew intuition concerning religion and language, God and the Logos, and (yet) to reinterpret it in more minimally anthropological terms.
For John, the word of the beginning, like Jesus’ message, was met with incomprehension. The fundamental anthropological intuition here is that the word, given its derivation from a gesture of individual appropriation, is first suspected of being not an affirmation but a denial of the central object’s sacred communal centrality, such that the original signer must in response deliberately intend his gesture as no longer appropriative-but-aborted but as ostensive, and thus as an action of an entirely new kind: as a sign that can be and is meant to be copied because, unlike a worldly gesture, it is in no way in conflict with the copies/imitations it provokes in others, and consequently resolves in this context the dangerous problem of potentially conflictive appropriative mimesis.
If Jesus’ message as described in the Gospels was indeed, like Hillel’s “golden rule,” a message of peace, why then was the Crucifixion required, not to permit the origin of human language, but to reveal the truth of its communal function?
To put this question in its broadest anthropological context: why does the replacement of Hebrew “tribal” sacrifice for the sake of communal peace by the spiritualization/universalization of the Eucharist, where the appetitive nourishment of bread and wine becomes subordinate to spiritual communion with the triune God, require not merely the Incarnation, but the Crucifixion and Resurrection? Why is it only through the Son’s sacrifice—the sacrifice previously offered by Abraham, but that God renounced as inhuman—that the communion of the sacrificial feast can become a spiritual union that transcends—and only through the mediation of this transcendence, permits—the fulfillment of our worldly appetites? And why should the latter-day discovery of the anthropological basis of this spiritual truth be understood as a “Jewish” discovery?
The explanation of the soft taboo touching the originary hypothesis is, in fact, no more obscure than, for example, that of our cultural intuition that sets tragedy above comedy.
No doubt humanity would never have emerged at all had the originary event, after any number of false starts, not produced a “comic” ending. But what John shows us is that the “tragic” failure of the Word, understood as an allegory of Jesus’ worldly failure, was paradoxically of greater significance than its eventual success. Or in other terms, if we are to continue to succeed in the human project, we must remember above all the danger of the Word’s failure, such that its eventual success can be understood only as a miracle effected by a benevolent God in order to protect man from his inherent sinfulness. It is because the Word brought peace, however fragile, to the human community that we can and must remember the ever-present danger of its failure.
To claim the originary event’s happy ending simply as a human triumph is, paradoxically enough, to ensure its failure. We can explain the sacred as a purely human phenomenon, but the effect of this explanation is hubris, the pride that goeth before a Fall. This is the “hard-necked” pride that Christianity had long attributed to the Jews, who may indeed continue to consider that their attentiveness to God’s word absolves them from listening to its “absurd” Christian variant. But I believe that the “elder brothers” can perform a greater service to humanity by explaining to those Christians willing to listen why the world as we know it needs both versions of the Word: both the Father’s secure self-affirmation and the Son’s absurd attestation of faith shining its light in the darkness.